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“Feminism has killed chivalry!” is one of the refrains that comes up repeatedly online.  Or that feminism wants to kill chivalry, can’t kill chivalry, or shouldn’t be allowed to kill chivalry.  Alternatively, the same terms pop up when a man defends himself against being called sexist by explaining that he was, in fact, being chivalrous.

A feminist steals a man's chivalric helmet whilst he begs for mercy.

A feminist steals a man’s chivalric helmet whilst he begs for mercy.

Leaving aside all the arguments about how surprising it is that a medieval system of military organization involving massive horses and steel plating should be so vulnerable to women talking back to it[1], I’m going to take this last complaint seriously.  If men are genuinely surprised that some women object to them opening doors elaborately, pulling chairs out for them, and insisting on being the one to ask them out and then pay for dinner, I think they’re not being entirely honest about their own motives.  Or at least they’re not examining their own experience fully, let alone trying to understand women’s.

Firstly, I ought to define my terms a bit.  Despite the joke above, I’m not using “chivalry” to mean a collection of social ideologies from the Middle Ages – though defenders of it often use rhetoric about “ladies” and “knights” which makes a claim for historical basis.  Instead I mean the gendered behaviour which involves a man visibly going out of his way to do something for a woman, usually a relatively symbolic action like opening a door for her, offering to carry her bags, standing up when she comes into the room, complimenting her on her looks, or raising his hat to her.[2]  It’s not the same as politeness, it’s not the same as offering a seat to someone who apparently needs it due to ill health, and it’s not the same as saying “please” and “thank you”.  I mention those because they’re often lumped in with it.  As far as I can see, “chivalry” is a specifically gendered phenomenon, and is understood as such by people who do it as well as people who don’t – after all, it’s so often defended as “being a gentleman”.

It’s also categorized, by those who like it, as “being nice”.  On the surface, this is an apparently compelling argument.  Why would anyone object to having a door held open for them?  Why should people demand to pay for their own drinks?  Who is being hurt if a guy tips his hat?  Even if you don’t particularly enjoy these things, other people do, and they’re not offensive actions.  Isn’t chivalry about men being a bit extra nice to women?  It’s a series of small gifts being presented to women by well-behaved men. If they don’t want the gifts, that’s fine.  The men are just being extra thoughtful.

Except I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how gifts work.  I’m not going to spell out why one “compliment” on your appearance is nice, if you’re in the mood, but fifteen on your way to work is tiresome.  Nor why it undermines a female professional to have everyone in the meeting stop discussing the project and stand up when she enters, making it clear that she is being put in a separate category from her peers.  Other people have written more convincingly, and from personal experience, on those issues.  I’m going to take chivalrous men at their word, that they think they’re giving women little gifts, and argue that this is disingenuous.  At the very least, it misunderstands gift giving, in a way which such men noticeably don’t misunderstand elsewhere in their lives.

We sometimes talk as if the defining feature of a gift is its total lack of “strings”.  Companies offer free gifts which we haven’t paid for and friends give each other gifts on their birthdays without expecting anything back.  But gifts actually put the giver and receiver into certain social roles.  The anthropologist and sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote in The Gift of the elaborate gifting ceremonies of Polynesian and North American societies.  Amongst his descriptions of ritual and social structure, he remarked on the way gifts are “apparently free and disinterested, but nevertheless constrained and self-interested”.  He wrote about the “obligations” which social groups put their members under, in giving, receiving and reciprocating, how “a gift is received ‘with a burden attached’”.  These obligations differ widely and drastically: in some places, it might be suitable to return a gift of exactly the same value, or of greater value, or of carefully non-equivalent value by giving another sort of gift.  The response might be immediate in some societies, and at a nicely calibrated distance in others.[3]  But gift-giving enmeshed all the participants into a set of social expectations and roles.  It was this set of insights which prompted Derrida into his fascinating and paradoxical speculations on the nature of gift-giving which concluded that a genuine gift is impossible.

Once Mauss’ most basic point is accepted – that gift giving is not a totally abstract, spontaneous and free-floating impulse of goodness – we can easily recognise the way gift giving is structured in particular instances from our own lives.  I can give a friend a birthday card or a cake on the anniversary of his first yowl heard in this world, but people might look oddly at me if I sent him a dozen red roses to be delivered at his office.  If I brought a bottle of wine to that friend’s party later on in the evening, he could either uncork in then and there, or thank me and put it away, saying he would make a point of enjoying it with a good book another time.  But if he handed it back saying it wasn’t a very good bottle and he had better wine in his kitchen, there would probably be an awkward moment.

We regularly negotiate the codes of gift-giving in our own lives, and I suspect most of us can recognise the element of “aggression” in giving which Mauss mentions.  The friend who makes such a fuss over helping us plan a party, lavishing time and energy on the arrangements, whilst assuming this puts us under an obligation to accept their suggestions.  The father of a mate at university, who insists on being taken to the student union bar, where he can play the host by buying drinks for everyone and talking about his student days.  There’s even an episode of Friends where Ross falls out with Rachel’s father, because Ross added a large tip to a bill which Mr. Green had paid.  The duties, benefits and roles involved in giving and taking gifts are something we work with continually.

So I think it’s either thoughtless or disingenuous for many men to claim they don’t understand why women wouldn’t want these small services from men.  Each act of “chivalry” is an attempt to ascribe a woman a particular social role, to put her under the obligation to accept a gift and to respond appropriately.  She may not know what that man considers an appropriate response, but it certainly won’t be to open a door for him next time they come to one, or to carry his case.  Modern “chivalry” is a deliberately asymmetrical system, in which women are put under a series of social obligations which they can only “pay off” by acting in a way which the man in question thinks suitable.  If she takes no notice and doesn’t respond, she’s not fulfilling the obligation to reciprocate, and is often judged to be a stuck-up princess who accepts such services as her due.  If she asks him “not to do that”, she’s breaking the duty to accept the gift, and is liable to be told she’s stuck-up in another way – or indeed that she’s a bitch, a man-hater or a bra-burner.

There are other, and better, arguments for why “chivalry” is a stalking-horse of supposedly benevolent sexism.  But this idea that it’s a spontaneous display of goodwill which requires no response struck me as particularly disingenuous – and one which is belied by the way men understand gift-giving in other parts of their lives.  If it needs more empirical evidence, I’d point to the number of women on sites like Feministe and Captan Awkward who mention men turning unpleasant when their supposedly no-strings gentlemanliness is declined – hollering “Well you’re WELCOME!” after them is about the most polite response.  As far as I can see, chivalry is an attempt to dictate how women should behave by pre-emptively putting them under a social obligation.  Which is a great shame, not least for the women in our society who are big fans of massive horses and highly-polished plate mail moving at enormous speeds…

[1] Women demanding respect: apparently a more lethal threat to chivalry than units of longbowmen protected by a pike formation or at least a decent pavise.  It’s a slogan, though possibly a bit lengthy for a T-shirt.

[2] Think I’m joking?  Check that Atlantic article I linked to above.

[3] James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes applies some of these ideas to really striking investigations into Ancient Athenian culture.  He talks in depth about “sticky gifts”, which adhere to the giver after being given – such as donations to temple cults which actually stay in the treasury in the city giving them.